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What Are Google’s Helpful Content Updates (HCUs)?

Google’s Helpful Content Update header image
Google’s Helpful Content Update header image

Google released the first of its Helpful Content Updates (HCUs) in August 2022 to adjust the pages it lists in search results. Instead of showing users generic marketing copy created for ranking purposes, HCU modifies the ranking algorithm to display pages with original content that offers real value.

The move to HCU was a long time coming. Google has long worried about “thin” content in search results. However, since the original 2022 update, AI-generated copy became more common, provoking the search engine to institute further changes.

Because of this, getting to the bottom of HCUs can be confusing for site owners and SEO agencies. It can be challenging to keep track of all the updates and what they mean.

This article will explain the rationale behind the original HCU from August 2022. Then, we will discuss how things changed each time Google rolled out an HCU update and how these changes impact SEO and content creation.

Helpful Content Update (August 2022)

Google introduced the first HCU to improve the usefulness of search results for users in 2022. It specifically targeted content types written for search engines, not humans, such as online educational materials and tech-related posts. These pages, Google argued, should rank lower than those that meet immediate user needs.

When justifying the update, Google gave the example of a user searching for information about a new movie. Previously, the search engine would have displayed articles aggregating reviews from across the web, even if they didn’t add further perspective.

But this approach, it said, wasn’t helpful because it didn’t provide users with anything new. Therefore, the August 2022 HCU update displays sites in search engine results pages (SERPs) with more unique information. Under this paradigm, users can learn more about the new movie instead of viewing a synthesis of existing content.

Site-wide Implications

Google’s August 2022 HCU adjusted the domain over which its ranking algorithm applied to make search more helpful. Instead of judging rankings on a page-by-page basis, the HCU operates site-wide. That means website owners who produce valuable content site-wide can expect page-specific ranking boosts.

During the initial update, Google didn’t reveal what percentage of pages needed to be “helpful” by its definitions. But the general message was that more was better. Furthermore, creating generic marketing copy for SEO could damage ranking performance, making it worse than a waste of time. T

Google’s HCU Questions

Google shared some questions website owners should ask themselves when announcing the original HCU update in 2022, which Search Engine Land reported in an article. The search giant said answering these well could help site managers and SEO respond to the updates.

Here are the questions, and our take on what they meant when Google first announced HCU’s release:

Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?

This question was not the clearest, but we deciphered it as meaning: Does your site have an overarching purpose? If someone went directly to your site, would they find the content useful to them? For us, it solidified why you should keep your blog content focused on your audience and not just designed to capture search queries.

Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?

We broke this one down meaning you need original images and research. We believed Google wanted high-quality original images related to pages talking about people or places.

Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?

This question refers to the site-wide nature of the HCU update. We argued it meant that site content should have an overarching purpose. We considered this an attack on sites that try to generalize and catch as many search queries on any topic as possible.

Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?

For this question, we argued Google was targeting thin content simply designed to capture traffic from a certain search query. Content without any images or rich formatting, we argued, could be a red flag.

Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

We thought this question targeted AI or mass page creators. Creating lots of thin pages for areas you serve or scraping ‘People Also Ask’ in Google to create multiple pages or posts was a no-no.

Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

We argued this question targeted thin content that doesn’t serve the user, so they have to click back and find another result. Obviously, that’s not helpful, so Google wants to avoid it.

Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).

This question, we said, targeted users who are writing to specific word counts simply because a tool (like Surfer SEO) tells them to. While we agreed that we shouldn’t be blindly writing to word counts based on tools, we do need to understand that writing for certain search queries requires a certain amount of words to cover the topic. The best way to find out this word count in most cases is to check the word count of competing articles for the particular search query.

Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?

Finally, we said this one takes another dive into EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) [now updated to be EEAT] and suggests the author of the content should be qualified to talk about the topic. Since HCU is site-wide, we suggested removing unhelpful content to boost ranking for your primary target keywords.

Helpful Content Update (September 2023)

The next significant HCU update arrived in September 2023, again sending shockwaves through the SEO community. This change improved the methods used in the initial August 2022 update and responded to AI-related technology developments.

Here are some of the most salient changes:

“Helpful Content Created For People”

The September 2023 HCU update called for “helpful content created for people” instead of “helpful content written by people.” This subtle change reflected Google’s changing stance on AI-generated content in light of more capable large language models (LLMs).

The new rules meant that Google no longer required content to be human-generated to deem it valuable. It was a concession that AI assistance could be helpful for writers, given the immense power of ChatGPT and other platforms.

Better Classifiers

Another change was an improved content classifier. From September 2023, Google made the algorithm better at spotting sophisticated low-quality articles and page copy.

Hosted Third-Party Content Changes

Google also clarified the role of hosted third-party content on domains for this update. In a statement, the search engine indicated that such material would generate site-wide signals, impacting SEO. If some hosted content was low-quality or unrelated to the site’s principal theme, it recommended blocking it from Google indexing.

This update reflected Google’s advice regarding third-party content hosting in 2019. Back then, the search engine said it was already getting better at building systems to detect if any content was independent of the site’s primary theme. By September 2023, it had almost perfected that approach.

Changes To Expert Review

Google also included a new clause to encourage more content creators to get a professional to review their copy. Again, the hope is that the resulting content will be more accurate and helpful to users.

Of course, Google has been asking content creators to demonstrate their expertise when discussing topics for a long time. So, as with the SEO implications of hosting third-party content, this change isn’t particularly radical.

Changes To Content Dates

Finally, Google adjusted the September 2023 HCU update to identify sites using the low-quality content refresh strategy of changing the dates on articles and blogs. Previously, this carried some SEO benefits, but not anymore.

With the new update, Google wants content creators to make more substantive changes to articles to make them more up-to-date. Changing one or two words here and there no longer flies.

The same applies to adding and removing lots of content site-wide to make your domain seem fresher. Google’s advice now is “don’t do it.”

What happens Next? Don’t Panic!

Google hasn’t released any additional updates for HCU since September 2023. However, it does say more changes are coming. The focus will be on boosting sites that demonstrate expertise or experience in line with their Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T).

As you can see, the march toward higher-quality content is relentless. Google wants to provide more value to users.

However, we don’t think most site owners should panic. This update mainly targets thin longtail question queries and AI content to capture irrelevant traffic at scale. Therefore, websites following white-hat strategies and deploying valuable content should be fine.

If you are struggling to do this, use FATJOE’s services. You get 100% human writers plus well-researched content that delivers value to users based on your brief.

Daniel Trick
Daniel Trick

Head of Content

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